South Korean leagues take stock amid COVID spike

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea may have been way ahead of the international curve in getting sport back to some semblance of normality but instead of near-full stadiums watching the end of baseball and soccer seasons later this year, a recent spike in coronavirus cases means officials will settle for just finishing the season at all.

In February, South Korea became the first country outside China to be hit significantly by COVID-19 but energetic measures soon had it under control. With new cases approaching single figures in early May both the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) league and soccer’s K-League were given the green light.

While sport around the world halted, both leagues basked in an unfamiliar international spotlight. In early July, fans were allowed to fill 10% of stadium seats, a figure that was raised to 30% earlier in August.

A new surge this week, with 324 cases on Friday the highest daily figure since March 8, prompted the government to shut stadiums in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, which contain more than half of the country’s 51 million residents.

Baseball officials had been hoping to move to 70% capacity in the coming weeks but Ryu Dae-hwan, the secretary general of the KBO, admitted such a number was now unlikely.

“I think we shouldn’t expect to have fans back in the seats for quite some time,” Ryu was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency. “Our main objective now is to finish the regular season and the postseason as safely as possible.”

The K-League had already reduced the number of soccer games for each of its 12 top tier teams from 38 to 27. There is an option to make a further cut to 22 games. KBO officials are contemplating similar action to reduce the 144 games that each of the 10 teams have to play.

“We have already reviewed possibilities of cutting the season to 135 games or to 126 games per team,” Ryu added.

Even soccer franchises outside Seoul and Gyeonggi have decided to close their stadiums for the moment.

“It is frustrating for us to play without fans for the next three home games,” Jeju United, based on an island off South Korea’s south coast, said in a statement. “But the health of the country comes first and we ask our fans to understand.”

Daegu FC, in the southeast, followed suit.

“The number of COVID-19 cases has been rising rapidly across the nation, and the city of Daegu wanted to prevent further local spread,” the team said.

Empty stadiums will increase the financial pressures on both sports. The K-League proposed earlier this week that all players earning more than 36 million won ($30,400) have their pay cut by 10%.

The reaction was negative.

“We’ll do everything in our power to prevent teams from cutting salaries without players’ consent,” the Korea Pro-Footballer’s Association said in a statement Thursday. “If that happens, we’ll respond sternly.”

Baseball is also struggling. Ryu added that baseball teams, a number of which have taken bank loans to cover operation costs, need around 25% stadium capacity to make ends meet.

“Our expectations were that, should the situation with COVID-19 stabilize in the latter half of the year, we would get that number to 50 to 70%,” he said. “That would really have helped our teams, but I think we can just forget about that now.”

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